A woman's life haunted by agent orange
I. The sorrows:
Le Thi Lien is from Hung Nhuong 10 hamlet, Vu Hoi commune, Vu Thu, Thai Sinh. Her husband Le Van Sinh is from the same village. In 1972, just a few days after their wedding, Sinh joined Division 304 fighting in the Quang Tri campaign. The battle on 7th August, 1972 has caused him great loss ever since. on that day flocks of combat aircraft, roaring in the skies above Quang Tri, poured out masses of pungent yellow dust upon the land below. After a short time, all the trees in that area dried up and died. Tragically Sinh had been exposed to Agent Orange.
At the time of his exposure Sinh had no idea what would be the ramifications of this fateful day. Even when he finally returned home to Thai Sinh in 1980, no one could have foreseen the tragic consequences that were soon to befall upon his family.
Entering Le Thi Lien's house, we saw a small child with a very pale complexion lying on the bed with his mouth open. He was looking around but not at anything in particular. Sometimes, he made inarticulate noise. Lien said painfully, "He is my youngest son. He is 4 years old but he cannot speak. He just lies in bed and makes strange noises all day".
Lien then told us the story of her life with tears on her face. "Life has been so hard on me! When I was pregnant with my first child, my body got so big that no clothes fitted me. My first child was deformed at birth and died only five hours later. My second child was a lovely boy. Everyone congratulated us on that. However only three days after birth he became very sick and we needed to rush him to the hospital. After that time I spent most of my time with him in the hospital. He never had a chance to stay at home more than a few days. one night in the storm season, his body was shaking and he was foaming at the mouth. We took him to the hospital in the storm but his situation never improved and 10 months later he died. It was then that the Doctors informed us that my husband was affected by Agent Orange."
"Why did you keep giving birth after you knew that Sinh had this poison inside his body?" I asked.
"He looks healthy. I just kept on hoping..." Lien did not finish. She looked somewhere far away. All the tears dried up. We saw in her the pain of a mother who lost her children.
Although being aware of the risks, resulting from Sinh's exposure to Agent Orange, they still hoped for good things to come whenever Lien fell pregnant. Of the nine children Lien gave birth to, only four of them, three girls and one boy, are still alive. Tragically, they are all either disabled or brainless. Le Thi Hoa, their 13-year-old daughter was playing in the front yard when we came. She cannot really use her arms. Her body was shaking most of the time. Lien said, "She can not eat food herself. I have got to feed her every meal". During the time we were there, Hoa was hiding under the bed. Sometimes, she popped her head out and laughed to herself.
Lien's oldest daughter, 19 year-old Le Thi Hue, is emptyheaded. Hue has been attending a sewing class held by the Vocational Training for Disabled People, Thai Sinh Red Cross Association. She still cannot even make a simple piece of cloth like a pair of shorts. The sewing machine, given to her by the Red Cross Association, sits idly in a corner of the house.
Lien's second daughter is a little bit better than her brother and sisters. She is now a year 9 student. Lien said, "The doctor changed her blood when she was just born. Maybe that is why her situation is better. However, she cannot study as well as other normal children. Teachers always let her pass the exams because she is not a normal child. My youngest son cannot do anything but lay down and make inarticulate sounds. He looks so pale all the time. It hurts a lot to see him like that!"
I realized from the situation of Lien's family that what the Vietnamese got from the war was not only victory.
2. No way out
Lien has to stay at the house all day to take care of the kids, so her husband is the only one who can work to earn money for the whole family. Her family has always been living in poverty because all the money Binh can earn needs to be spent on medicine for the children.
Lien said "My husband came to visit us at night every time I had to stay at the hospital with any of our children. He stayed with us through the night. During the day Binh went collecting rubbish such as waste paper or small pieces of metal. He earned a little money by selling those things. We use that money to buy medicine for our children. one time, we did not have any money so Binh had to work through the night in mud. He got wet and sick. He developed a nasty ulcer on his skin that needed treatment for several months. I rushed to borrow money everywhere to pay for his hospital fee. Lucky for us he got over it eventually.
Our neighbors were really moved when they saw my husband breaking his back to earn a living. They lent him some money so that he could buy a "xich 10" and earn money with just a little less effort. When he is out working, I stay at home making bags so we can have some more money for the kids.
One day my husband worked late. He missed the last ferry and could not get home before it got dark. I was so worried about him. I carried my youngest child with me and went looking for him everywhere that night. I felt really panicked until he got back to the house the following morning".
When I asked if they received any help from the Government, Lien said, "My husband and the kids have just got Invalidity Pension from the Government since last year. Each of them can get 84,000 VND per month". "Why did it take so long for your pensions to be approved?" I asked.
"I have no complaint. We feel happy enough because the Party and the Government did not forget all about us!" Lien said.
In early 2001 the Thai Binh provincial Red Cross Association supported Lien's family with a donation of 2 million VND. With additional help from the neighborhood, they built a brick house and a concrete front yard. Lien said, "We were so happy when we moved into this house. My husband is the head of his family's branch. We are now able to organize every family meeting here as we are supposed to do". For the first time in our conversation, I saw Lien get quite excited. Her family's modest source of happiness was actually derived from a very modest gesture of support, but which can in no way make up for the tragic losses that they have already suffered.
We waited until after dark for Binh to return home on his old "xich 10". Binh said he came home earlier than usual because he did not have many customers. He is a tall, thin man with dark skin. Clearing the sweat off his face with the stained towel usually hung over his shoulders, Binh said to me, "I suspect that you have already
heard from my wife the story of our family. I hate myself for being the source of trouble in my family. It was all because of the cruel poison in my body. Sometimes I want to kill myself to end this pain. But then I realize that I should live my life for my wife and for our kids. They need to be taken care of. Fortunately, our second child is quite a normal person. If only she is able to go for further study then I am willing to do everything to earn money to support her".
I kept thinking about these six people and the way their life was affected by Agent Orange, wondering to myself where they would go in life. I truly wish them energy and courage to get over the incredible burden that has been placed upon them.